Goats trump Caterpillars on Dearborn

By Rick Levin
King FM 98.1

June 1, 2007

CENTRAL DISTRICT - Vashon Island, WA - It is the ultimate irony. After centuries of evolution in the technology of clearing fields-from slash-and-burn agriculture to hand-held scythes to the brute force of motorized bulldozers-a Vashon woman has discovered an ecologically and financial sound method of brush removal that is old as life itself.

She uses goats.

Anyone driving Dearborn Avenue on the afternoon of Friday, May 25, will have been greeted by a sight worthy of a Twilight Zone episode: a herd of some 90 goats munching away at the brambles on a quarter-acre parcel of urban property where townhouses are scheduled to go up.

The goats belong to Vashon Island resident Tammy Dunakin, sole owner and proprietor of Rent a Ruminant, a landscaping business that employs 100-percent animal power as a means of clearing brush from property. "It's a small job," Dunakin said of the Dearborn brush removal, which she estimated would take about three days of solid chewing. As of Saturday morning, things were going well. "They've made a huge impact on it," Dunakin said.

Rent a Ruminant started as something of a lark, Dunakin said. "I was looking for a career change," she explained. "It was just kind of a joke to start with." When she went on-line to check it out, however, Dunakin discovered that businesses in other states indeed were employing live herds to clear properties-often as a means of preventing the spread of wild fires.

"They would literally bring in thousands of goats," she said of such enterprises, adding that for many goatherd businesses it was only natural to branch out into general brush removal. Dunakin even discovered a business called Healing Hooves in Eastern Washington.

She started up two years ago with just 10 goats; she now utilizes about 90 goats, as well as a couple of sheep. Many members of her herd were given to her by folks who just didn't want them, though at this point she's beginning to breed them. She guessed that right now there are about nine different breeds of goat in her herd.

Because it's such a physical and financial burden to load up her herd and drive it from the island into town, Dunakin maintains a 60-goat minimum; smaller jobs just aren't feasible. The average gig lasts from three or four days to a week or more. "I have to turn down really small jobs," Dunakin said. Many of the jobs she does on Vashon Island are for private contractors, she said, though she has also been hired by everything from water districts to county parks departments.

All things being equal, she estimates that on average it takes 15 goats anywhere from a week to 10 days to clear a quarter acre of brush. "It really depends on the job," Dunakin explained, adding that such factors as the density of the brush and the topography of the land all contribute to the particular duration of a job. Renting a ruminant can cost anywhere from $750 to $1,000 a day.

"Goats can eat a lot of things that are considered noxious," Dunakin said. Blackberry bushes are the most common overgrowth her herds are called in to clear; there's also scotch broom, ivy, nettles, various grasses and even small saplings. Contrary to folklore, goats can't eat everything. "There are several things that are toxic to goats," she said, including rhododendron, tansy ragwort, foxglove and laurel. "I screen pretty heavily for that sort of thing," Dunakin said.

For the most part, however, goats live up to their reputation. "They are voracious," she said of her herds' appetite for all manner of flora. Dunakin said "it's quite an experience" to hear a herd of 90 goats mowing down a field of brush. "It sounds like the whole world is munching," she said.

Not only is it often quicker and cheaper to use goats instead of man-and-machine methods like bulldozers to clear fields; it is far more ecologically sound, Dunakin pointed out-no carbon monoxide emissions, no burn piles, less gas consumption (minus transportation) and less noise.

Dunakin said her site requirements when clearing land are "pretty low key." Arriving at a given plot, she'll set up a fence and simply let the goats go at it until they are done. She stays on site, cooking on a Coleman stove and sleeping in her truck. For "more urban jobs," she does require some type of security for the night. After all, she feels beholden to protecting and caring for her workforce.

"We really work as a team," she said of her goats, adding that she believes she's giving them a darn good existence. "My goats thoroughly love what they do," she said. "They love variety in their lives. They like all the attention they get. It's exciting for them."

Unlike some goat-oriented businesses, Dunakin doesn't slaughter her goats when they're too old to work. "They get good retirement homes when they're done," she said, adding that this is the least she can do for a lifetime of loyal and dutiful work.

Dunakin said she's really come to appreciate her animals, noting that they are hardly the dumb, bottomless pits they are made out to be. "They're smart," she said of her goats. "They problem solve.

"They scheme," she said with a laugh.

Staff writer Rick Levin may be reached via mageditor@nwlink.com.



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